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Spiritual but Secular

Young people are leaving the church in droves. But they haven’t necessarily rejected spirituality.

By Anne Bokma


Stacey McLachlan doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t go to church. Well, except at Christmas “to make my grandma happy.” None of her friends attends religious services either. The 28-year-old Vancouver magazine editor says her need for community is satisfied by a solid group of friends, her volunteer work as a writing mentor at inner city schools, participating in improv classes, playing on sports teams and being close to her family. “I’m pretty set in my belief — or non-belief,” says McLachlan. “I don’t think I’m missing out by not going to church.”

Many blame the lack of millennials (16-36 year olds) in the pews for the potential demise of the church. There are nine million millennials in Canada and, according to Pew Research,
36 percent have no religious affiliation whatsoever — more than twice the number of unaffiliated boomers. A 2012 poll of 1,000 Canadian millennials by Abacus Data found 51 percent said they never attend a religious institution. Just 12 percent attend weekly. And a 2010 poll by LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tenn., found 72 percent said they are more spiritual than religious — making them a generation that could change the religious landscape forever.

It’s not uncommon for young people to drop out of church and come back once they settle into careers and family life. But that may not happen this time around. Since so many have never even gone to church, there’s nothing to “come back” to. Millennials have even more institutional skepticism than previous generations, and their progressive views on issues such as LGBT rights and inclusion just don’t jibe with many traditional faiths. They are also getting married and having kids later in life, if at all.

“Their time away from church is growing significantly. What used to be four to five years is now 10 to 15 years,” says Roxanne Stone, editor-in-chief at the California-based Barna Group, an organization that examines cultural and religious trends. “You are going to build a lot of habits in that time, and you will figure out how to live your life without the church. . . . It will take something dramatic to get you back.”

Canadian scholar Siobhan Chandler, an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria who studies the Spiritual But Not Religious, says there is a chance this demographic may come to see a need for religion later in life “when they enter recovery for addiction, get divorced, lose a child or parent or lover, or have a mystical experience.”

Research by Reginald Bibby, a sociologist with the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, indicates that while a belief shift is taking place and moderate believers are moving toward agnosticism, the young haven’t given up faith altogether. For example, 55 percent say they have spiritual needs and 85 percent say they expect to turn to religious institutions in the future for weddings and funerals.

The Barna Group’s Stone admits it’s “confusing” to figure out what millennials want, but her company’s research provides some clues — for example, those who stay in a faith community are twice as likely to have close personal friendships with an adult in their church (59 percent versus 31 percent of those who are no longer active).

“The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird,” Rachel Held Evans, 34, author of Searching For Sunday, wrote in The Washington Post. Raised an evangelical Christian, Evans eventually found her way to the Episcopal church. “What finally brought me back . . . was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, communion, preaching the word, anointing the sick — you know those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practising for the past 2,000 years.”

Having a faith practice may be seen as a quaint yet unnecessary tradition by millennials, but Evans has hope that God can survive the Internet age: “After all, he knows a thing or two about resurrection,” she says.

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.


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